An intellectual channel tunnel

New French Thought
August 9, 1996

This book, the first of a series that hopes to "introduce English speakers to I the new generation of French intellectuals", presents itself as an antidote to philosophical provincialism. Its eloquently argued editorial premise is that the revival of liberalism in France heralds a new rapprochement between the continental and Anglo-American philosophical traditions. In his thoughtful and informative introduction, Mark Lilla traces the current preoccupation with liberal political philosophy partly to a dissatisfaction with the trends that have dominated the French intellectual scene since the 1960s, and partly to recent political events in Eastern Europe which precipitated a crise de conscience among the French. The authors anthologised here self-consciously distance themselves from earlier debates "over Marxism, structuralism, feminism" which generate little interest in France today, and focus instead on "the liberal society and its problems". While drawing attention to the uniqueness of the French political experience, Lilla makes clear that the aim of this book is not simply to show that there is life after the Marxist "master thinkers" of 1968, but to contribute to a wider discussion about our "liberal age" unfettered by the labels of yesteryear.

What follows is, alas, a collection of frustratingly short articles, often no more than five or six pages long, that affords little scope for detailed argumentation. Still, despite the brevity of the contributions, the debate is interesting and lively. Tradition is criticised, most effectively in Tzvetan Todorov's intelligently polemical piece on Levi-Strauss. Mainly though, the relation to tradition is treated as a methodological question with direct implications on the issue of legitimation. Thus, those who argue that the liberal state is a self-legitimating entity tend to repudiate the French historicist legacy, while those who stress the role of historical circumstances in the emergence of the liberal state as the solution to the modern problem of legitimation want to redefine this legacy and their position within it.

Philippe Raynaud, who positions himself somewhere in the middle, reclaims the French liberal tradition through the work of Benjamin Constant, a committed liberal who nonetheless is acutely aware "of the difficulty in identifying fully with modern society even though it produces the conditions for individual emancipation". While Constant asserts unequivocally the legitimacy of popular sovereignty, he rejects Jacobin voluntarism and offers a historical analysis that shows that individual liberty is "a rational necessity, functionally adapted to the requirements of modern life". This quasi-pragmatic explanation opens some interesting paths of enquiry which Raynaud does not pursue. The most disappointing pieces are by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut. Their first offering, a captious and unsubtle critique of Foucault, Deleuze and Nietzsche, ends with a proposal to reconsider the question of right. When they tackle this question later, in an absurdly short essay, they opt for a ritualistic invocation of Kant's name but attempt no analysis of Kant's arguments. Their third essay, ostensibly on Kant and Fichte is a telegraphic invective against Heidegger and Hegel with scarcely a mention of either Kant or Fichte. Still, the main flaw of this book is not the propensity of certain authors to caricature but the lack of engagement with contemporary critics of liberalism, say Alasdair MacIntyre or Charles Taylor. Indeed, apart from Jean-Marc Ferry's interest in Habermas, non-French thinkers are virtually absent, which is ironic in a book that purports to build a bridge between different traditions. Though at its best it is an accessible and useful overview of current French thinking, it is difficult to dispel the impression that this is a volume of tastefully aranged appetisers designed to whet the appetite of a mainly transatlantic audience.

Katerina Deligiorgi teaches philosophy at the University of Essex and of York.

New French Thought: Political Philosophy

Editor - Mark Lilla
ISBN - 0 691 03434 6 and 0 691 00105 7
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £40.00 and £12.95
Pages - 239

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